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Becoming Stewards: Transforming New Leaders through Reflective Practice

Leadership and Management

Becoming Stewards: Transforming New Leaders through Reflective Practice

Whether one subscribes to the notion that leadership is simply one of several roles a manager plays in an organization (Mintzberg, 1989) or that management and leadership are two distinct processes, with the latter being the more visionary and inspiring of the two (Kotter, 1990), one cannot dispute the plethora of research on the topic of becoming a leader. In most industries, a leader grows by progressing up an organization’s hierarchy, learning the characteristics of a successful leader from their immediate supervisor and others of similar status. Higher education, conversely, does not follow the same pyramidal organizational form of most industries. For this reason, a different circumstance awaits a new leader in higher education and demands different tools to remedy this.

Challenges of transitioning to a leadership role

Leadership in higher education has some specific challenges that are not always apparent to those who transition from a traditional faculty role. The complexity of higher education institutions is something for which few new leaders are prepared. Because of this, there is a steep learning curve involved in the transition. In addition to the learning curve, new leaders often end up learning on the job as there is a lack of formal leadership training, which can lead to frustration and a feeling of being overwhelmed (Roy, 2014). Responsibilities of academic leaders expand to a wider range of institutional stakeholders (Palm, 2006). This greater responsibility requires learning the bigger picture of the institution while supporting and leading others to a vision of the future.

Academic leaders have other challenges as well. Many leaders face cynicism from former colleagues (Palm, 2006). Even the most heartfelt decisions will not please everyone, which can put leaders in a difficult position (Roy, 2014). As a result, new leaders may feel a bit of isolation from those they lead. In addition, academic leaders sometimes must give up their own academic careers to focus on the mission of the institution and college (Palm, 2006); however, academic leaders can gain credibility in the eyes of faculty through their continued work as academics. Stepping into a leadership position is often a one-way trip. It is rare for someone to transition to a leadership role and immediately transition back to faculty. The move to leadership should be carefully considered (Roy, 2014). Even with these challenges, leadership roles bring with them many rewarding outcomes.

Unlike other industries, where a leader’s role grows over time, the move from faculty to academic leadership can be much more abrupt. Where once they were the experts in their fields and familiar with their place in their department or college, new leaders must look beyond those somewhat limited boundaries and develop a sense of the new culture they must operate within—one that spans the entire institution. There may be cultural norms within the broader organization that the leader must be reinforce but also a recognition that the new leader can have an effect on this culture (Bass & Avolio, 1993). Just as each organization has its own culture, there is no single manual or guide to inform the new leader as to what the culture is and how to make sense of it.

While there may be some leadership preparation programs in place, there is no better training than actual practice. Yet, some of the problems with this approach are inherent. First, there is a precipitous learning curve because of the added responsibilities of academic leadership. Next, former peers and colleagues will begin to treat leaders differently. The transition from faculty member to academic leader requires becoming a problem solver and visionary. Although a lot of hard work is necessary, academic leaders have a large influence on the success and improvement of multiple institutional stakeholders.


Higher education leaders serve as stewards of their institutions. They supervise and manage the day-to-day alignment of operations with strategic goals. This means that they must safeguard the institution’s well-being (Braxton & Ream, 2017). Although this role is provisional, stewardship has long-lasting consequences for the institution and corresponding stakeholders. As such, higher education leaders must consider self-assessing and restructuring their personal and professional goals to ensure consistent results for their institutions. This takes a focus on adaptability and continuous improvement for leaders to sustain the integrity of their institutions in the long term. One way to think about this sustained achievement of strategic goals is through the scholarship of practice—more specifically, reflective practice.

There are three procedural improvements higher education leaders might implement to ensure sustained stewardship in their institutions. These improvements include (1) using empirical evidence for action, (2) publishing and sharing empirical evidence about their practice with other leaders, and (3) building a knowledge base for administrative work​ (Kramer & Braxton, 2017). In making these changes, higher education leaders may not only engage in better decision-making but also likely ensure the continued success of their respective departments, colleges, and institutions.

Reflective practice

Achieving these practical and scientific goals requires reflective practice, which can be characterized in a variety of ways. A synthesis of the literature provides the following characteristics: (1) a developed skill of intentional thinking, (2) a method of inquiring about problems of practice​, (3) a contextually bound activity, (4) a situationally transformative engagement, and (5) a practice that is theory guided (Fergusson et al., 2020; Greenberger, 2020). Ultimately, reflective practice can be used to sustain stewardship.

Structured reflective practice offers many benefits for higher education leaders. Some of these benefits include increased self-awareness (Meierdirk, 2016), improved decision-making (Pope et al., 2018), efficient practical problem-solving (Hong & Choi, 2015), and enhanced well-being (Stevenson, 2020). Improving decision-making and problem-solving are two of the most important benefits. Reflective practice can also be personally and situational transformative. For all of these reasons, leaders can use reflective practice to sustain the health of higher education institutions. They can also use it to publish and share empirical evidence about their practice and build a knowledge base for their administrative work.

Greenberger (2020) developed a tool to both document and make public the reflective practice of leaders. Originally developed for faculty to document their scholarly engagement, the Guide for Reflective Practice also provides a step-by-step tool to organize, document, and publish the reflective practice of academic leaders (Greenberger, 2020). The guide supports leaders in defining their problem of practice, identifying reasons for problems, evaluating reasons, and making a decision. Essentially, the product of the guide is evidence based—ready for organizing a solution to the problem and publishing the practical insights in an academic journal. With this goal in mind, academic leaders may make more effective decisions, share their insights with other leaders and scholars, and begin to build that knowledge base that is so critical to sustaining stewardship in their institutions. The Guide for Reflective Practice is published in Greenberger (2020) and is also available online at this link. For more information, you may contact Scott Greenberger at scott.greenberger2@gcu.edu.


Bass, B. M., & Avolio, B. J. (1993). Transformational leadership and organizational culture. Public Administration Quarterly, 17(1), 112–121. ​

Braxton, J. M., & Ream, T. C. (2017). The scholarship of practice and stewardship of higher education. New Directions for Higher Education, 2017(178), 95–102.​ https://doi.org/10.1002/he.20237

Fergusson, L., Van Der Laan, L., & Baker, S. (2019). Reflective practice and work-based research: A description of micro-and macro-reflective cycles. Reflective Practice, 20(2), 289–303. https://doi.org/10.1080/14623943.2019.1591945

Greenberger, S. W. (2020). Creating a guide for reflective practice: Applying Dewey’s reflective thinking to document faculty scholarly engagement. Reflective Practice, 21(4), 458–472. https://doi.org/10.1080/14623943.2020.1773422

Hong, Y. C., & Choi, I. (2015). Assessing reflective thinking in solving design problems: The development of a questionnaire. British Journal of Educational Technology, 46(4), 848–863. https://doi.org/10.1111/bjet.12181

Kramer, J. W., & Braxton, J. M. (2017). Contributions to types of professional knowledge by higher education journals. New Directions for Higher Education2017(178), 9–20.​ https://doi.org/10.1002/he.20230

Kotter, J. P. (1990). A force for change: How leadership differs from management. The Free Press.

Meierdirk, C. (2016). Is reflective practice an essential component of becoming a professional teacher? Reflective Practice, 17(3), 369–378. https://doi.org/10.1080/14623943.2016.1169169

Mintzberg, H. (1989). Mintzberg on management: Inside our strange world of organizations. The Free Press.

Palm, R. (2006). Perspectives from the Dark Side: The career transition from faculty to administrator. New Directions for Higher Education, 2006(134), 59–65. https://doi.org/10.1002/he.217

Pope, C. C., Penney, D., & Smith, T. B. (2018). Overtraining and the complexities of coaches’ decision making: Managing elite athletes on the training cusp. Reflective Practice, 19(2), 145–166. https://doi.org/10.1080/14623943.2017.1361923

Roy, M. M. (2014). Preparing for a successful career in academic leadership: Understanding your role. In L. L. Behling (Ed.), The resource handbook for academic deans (3rd ed., pp. 3–7). Jossey-Bass. ​

Stevenson, N. (2020). Developing academic wellbeing through writing retreats. Journal of Further and Higher Education, 1–13. https://doi.org/10.1080/0309877X.2020.1812549

Scott Greenberger, EdD, is director of the Reflective Practice Lab, Center for Innovation in Research and Teaching​ at Grand Canyon University.

Greg Rogers, PhD, is assistant vice president of institutional effectiveness at Grand Canyon University.

Rick Holbeck, EdD, is executive director of online faculty​ at Grand Canyon University.


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